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The last time the Long Beach Poly boys’ water polo team won a CIF Southern Section championship, there were still waves on the city’s beaches. A lot of things have changed since 1929–including the construction of the breakwater–but on Saturday at the Woollett Aquatic Center in Irvine, the Jackrabbits got a chance to make some waves of their own. Poly won its first boys’ water polo title in 92 years thanks to a 14-11 victory over Crespi in the CIF-SS Division 4 title game.
“This means so much to us, it means so much to me,” said Poly coach Ish Pluton. Like Poly’s entire coaching staff, Pluton is an alumni of the school and water polo program. “I came back to coach Poly water polo because of how much of a family it was when I was a player. To be able to come back and be the coach and to be a part of this family again, having a group of boys that can accomplish this–it truly means the world to me. And to so many Poly alums who share that same sense.”
Ten minutes into the championship game, it didn’t look like things were going to end with smiles and hugs. After having blown through the first three rounds of the playoffs (winning every game by 10 goals or more) and surviving a close one-goal semifinal game, Poly found themselves somewhere they hadn’t been this postseason: behind.
Crespi came out with the gas pedal mashed all the way down, and roared out to a 5-1 lead as they physically dominated the Jackrabbits. Pepperdine commit Milo Joseph had a hat trick in the first quarter for the Celts, who limited Poly to just one goal by Reece Hammond on a penalty try. With the Jackrabbits 5-1 after the first quarter–after never having trailed this postseason–there would have been plenty of reasons to expect to see Poly’s heads down. But that didn’t happen.
“It was not looking good, they had us in the first half, I’m not going to lie,” said Hammond, who finished with three goals. “But I looked around and I looked at who I was playing with, my brothers who I’ve known for four years now. And I’m like, ‘Alright boys, we can pull this off.’”
Pluton, too, said he drew confidence from the bond that his team has displayed all year.
“Every last guy in the pool was building each other up, nobody was getting down on each other,” he said.
The Jackrabbits started double-teaming Joseph, and the Celts offense ground to a halt. They scored just once in the second and third quarter, on a counter by Joseph. In that time, the Jackrabbits found their rhythm and started burying shots, going on a 10-1 run over two-plus quarters of the game.
Chaz Pruett scored four times in that stretch, and said the team’s rally was a special thing to be a part of.
“We didn’t give up, and we started playing for each other,” said Pruett, who finished with five goals and four steals. “And Charlie stepped up huge in the second half.”
The unlikely hero of Poly’s playoff run has been senior Charlie Lemmis, the Jackrabbits’ goalie. Lemmis, who started playing water polo just two years ago after years of training as a soccer goalie, had nine saves in the championship, and was a big part of Poly completely shutting down Crespi in the middle half of the game.
“My coaches always say to me, don’t think about the future or the past, just think about what you’re doing right then and there,” said Lemmis. “That’s what I did–there were so many fans and I just wanted to put on a show. Winning a championship after so long, it feels impossible–but we did it.”
The Jackrabbits led 11-6 early in the fourth, a remarkable turnaround from their 5-1 deficit after the first. Joseph would score another three goals in the fourth (running his total to seven goals in the game), but Poly got scores from Colin Soohoo, Tyler Oatey, Hammond, and Pruett to keep the game out of reach. Oatey had three steals, and Soohoo and Markus Cruz had three assists apiece.
Poly secured the 14-11 victory and celebrated by diving into the pool together with their coaches.
“It feels amazing,” said Oatey. “We’re gonna walk into the pool someday and 2021’s going to be up on that banner. We did this for all of the alumni, everyone who came before us, everyone in the stands.”
Oatey, a Poly legacy whose entire family has attended the school for generations, said this was beyond his wildest dreams.
“I don’t think, me, my dad, any of us saw something like this coming,” he said. “A lot of us were new to water polo in high school and we’ve just been grinding and learning. We put in all those years of hard work for 28 minutes today.”
Those 28 minutes were golden, and will be marked down permanently in the CIF-SS and Poly record books–it was the school’s 126th CIF-SS championship. The numbers “2021” will soon be pasted up on the banners at the school, as well. What was perhaps more impressive than the historic accomplishment was the obvious love and brotherhood between the players this postseason, as well as their coaches.
Beau Wade had a goal and three steals in the game, and tried to put into words what the win meant to him and his friends.
“I just wanted the coaches to get drenched, I just wanted to get them in the pool,” he said. “That’s what I wanted to happen more than anything. They’ve been growing up with us and mentoring us and teaching us the last four years, and it’s great to have something in my senior year that I can share with them. It’s such a big achievement and we got to do it together.”
The Jackrabbits will bask in their achievement for another day, awaiting Sunday’s CIF State Regional championship brackets–with games starting on Tuesday next week, this historic squad has a chance at even more history.